Search This Blog


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Relative Morality: The Trolley Problem and Seven Scenarios that Demonstrate Morality is Relative and Dependent on our Prior Knowledge

Many hold to the belief that there is an objective or absolute moral standard that exists externally from us, and that we have a kind of moral sense that sniffs out this underlying moral code, or they believe their religion or their God provides a moral basis for all our moral actions and judgements.

All of these assumptions seem to be falsified by one simple thought experiment. You may have heard of it. It’s called The Trolley problem.

Here I am merely going to consider seven alternate scenarios of the trolley problem and change the conditions of each version of the events in the thought experiment and then discuss the moral consequences of each.

If I’m correct, I think you’ll find that when the conditions change our moral inclination changes as well. When the prior knowledge we have available changes our moral judgement shifts too. This will prove that morality is relative and dependent upon conditional restraints, including but not limited to our level of understanding regarding the conditions themselves.

The first thing we will need to do is set up the Trolley problem.

The Trolley Problem
There are three people tied to a stretch of track. Up ahead is a train baring down on them fast. All three will surely perish if nothing is done.

Now, let’s consider various scenarios and see how changing the conditions changes our moral perspective.

Scenario A
Suddenly we realize we are in proximity of a lever that will switch the tracks and divert the speeding train onto a different path thereby saving all three hapless victims.

 Question: Do you pull the lever?

Unless you’re a sociopath, the answer is most assuredly yes. People, whether it is because of some evolutionary altruistic sense or simply a humanistic desire not to see harm come to innocent people, will always choose to pull the lever and save those people. Nobody who contains such moral feelings ever says, in all seriousness, no to saving the people. At least, I haven’t run across any. Additionally, there is no logical reason not to.

One might object: but wait a minute! What if those people tied to the tracks are escaped criminals and convicts? Well, then we’ve changed the conditions of the thought experiment. Which we are going to do to show, just as this objection shows, that people’s moral views change depending upon the conditions which also change – thus showing that human morality is relative.

Scenario B
It’s the same problem. The train is barreling down the tracks and the three people are surely doomed. This time we happen to be standing on a bridge which crosses directly over the tracks. We look down, but to our dread discover that there is no switch track. Standing to our right, however, we suddenly notice an extremely obese man. He is so large, in fact, that if we pushed him off the bridge and onto the tracks then he’d surely stop the train thereby saving all three lives.

 Question: Do you push the fat man onto the tracks, thereby murdering him, in order to save three hapless lives?

Here is where things start to get tricky. Most people will say no, even though the statistical outcome varies very slightly from the original. Three people’s lives still hang in the balance. If you act quickly you can save all three. It does, however, require you to deliberately push someone onto the train tracks thereby killing them to save three others. But if you do nothing, those three people will surely become roadkill.

Standing by and doing nothing while you watch others suffer while they endure a horrible event is often called the *bystander effect. Most people will make justifications for why they shouldn’t involve themselves. Watching a bar fight, they might say, well, I’ll let those two settle matters. It’s between them. Watching a husband abuse a spouse they might say the same. It’s between them, none of my business. There have been real world examples of public rape in India where nobody interrupted the violent rape of a woman on a bus because it simply wasn’t any of their business.

Other times it appears people are genuinely fearful. If they get involved there is a real risk that they will be harmed as well. This deters people from doing what they feel is the right thing and allowing what they see as the lesser evil (at least from their point of view) to unfold instead of making it into a travesty by involving themselves and putting themselves into harm’s way.

Needless to say, most people are not comfortable taking a life to save three innocent lives. In fact, most would rather (willfully) allow three people to perish rather than (willfully) have to kill someone against their will.

Some have objected that there are other possible ways to grapple with this scenario. For example, you could jump onto the tracks yourself and try stopping the train in a noble act of self-sacrifice. But, unlike the fat man, there is no guarantee it will work. After all, you aren’t sufficiently large enough to halt the oncoming train. It’s a gamble and the odds are not in your favor.

What’s more, knowing that you’ll in all likelihood die, you are technically only committing suicide which, when you think about it, is only adding insult to injury of the three who will surely die regardless of your sacrifice.


The above scenarios A and B are the basis of the classic Trolley problem.

They show us that our moral sense goes into panic when we are faced with a more precarious situation, such as scenario B.

We often hesitate since our minds are desperately trying to figure out a right answer when there isn’t likely one. The truth is, in such a situation we simply don’t know what to do. Which is why in real life we have examples of both great heroics and people idly standing by and doing nothing.

Meanwhile, we know that willfully killing the person would be wrong, so we don’t want to do it. But we also are uncomfortable with the idea that three innocent people will die for no reason – or worse, because we chose to do nothing when we could have, in fact, easily prevented their deaths.

This discomfort expresses the success of the Trolley problem as a thought experiment, because if there were an easy answer, a recognizable objective or absolute moral standard, the answer would always be clear to us. But it’s not. Instead of moral clarity we have moral confusion.

On top of this, the Trolley problem also demonstrates that our moral sense relies on the conditions and prior knowledge and thus is rendered relative to the events unfolding around us and in relation to us.

How do we know this? Well, believe it or not, we can actually confuse our moral senses even more!

Consider the following example.

Scenario C
The same problem as scenario B. The train is rushing at breakneck pace toward three people trapped on the tracks. We are standing on a bridge when, low and behold, we discover there is a fat man standing next to us on the bridge. He is large enough to stop the train if, and only if, we push him off the bridge and onto the tracks.
 As we saw with scenario B, this is where most people grow extremely uncomfortable. But let’s make this scenario slightly more imperative than version B.
 This time we *do know the people tied to the tracks. The people are 1) your mother, 2) your doctor, and 3) your best friend.

 Question: Do you push the fat man onto the track and stop the train thereby saving your mother, your doctor, and your best friend?

When this scenario is given many people (not all, but quite a surprising number) will immediately reverse their choice from scenario B, where they held it was wrong to push the fat man onto the tracks, and will suddenly – and without hesitating – shove the fat man off the bridge thereby saving their important loved ones.

Scenario C is used to express the fact that we place greater moral value in those who are close to us, whether it is our family, our tribe, our neighbors, our fellow countrymen.

But nothing has statistically changed in this example. The only thing that has changes is our foreknowledge. This time we know exactly who are tied on the tracks before we have to face making any moral judgement.

But we’re not finished yet! There is yet another couple scenarios that will demonstrate the greater good is not always necessarily dependent upon a moral judgement and a moral judgement, made in good faith, doesn’t necessarily guarantee the greater good.

Allow me to explain.

Scenario D
This is the same as scenario C, but this time, instead of your doctor the person wedged between your best friend and your mother is Adolf Hitler. Now, Hitler is a real bad dude. You know this. Everyone knows this. The question is…

Question: Do you push the fat man off the bridge and save three innocent lives knowing that, perhaps, one of them is the greatest mass murdering psychotic dictator in all of history?

In such a situation many become even more morally confused. They want to save their mom and their friend but they know that if they let Hitler live he will probably kill millions of innocent people. Once they realize this, they find themselves asking whether or not the value of their friend’s life and their mother’s life is worth millions of other lives, including the life of the fat man which they’d have to push in order to save the three on the tracks.

The things is, if we throw an evil person like Adolf Hitler into the mix most people are back to refusing to push the fat man.

But what if there was no fat man?

Scenario E
This scenario is exactly like scenario A, where there is a switch track and a lever we can pull to divert the train. And like scenario D, it’s your best friend, mother, and Adolf Hitler.

Question: Do you pull the lever?

Many find it harder to do. Some will and some won’t, depending on how much they value their loved ones and how much they despise the evil person on the tracks.

Scenario F
We’re not out of the woods yet. Just like scenarios C, D, and E we know who are on the tracks. But this time, two of the three are evil. This time you see your best friend is next to Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson!

Question: Do you pull the lever?

In this scenario more people are inclined to sacrifice their best friend, because they don’t want two evil people running a muck and harming countless others.

But what has changed here? Notice that now they will sacrifice their best friend when earlier they wouldn’t even sacrifice a perfect stranger to save three people and in scenario C their very own beloved family members and friends!

Scenario G
Same as the above but this time all three persons tied to the tracks are evil sons of bitches. We have Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, and Stalin.

Question: Do you pull the lever?

There isa G-2 scenario which says the evildoers are on the clear tracks, safe but still tied up. It asks if you'd switch the lever to deliberately put them in harms way knowing how evil they truly are. In one fell swoop you could take out Hitler, Manson, and Stalin.

Would you do it? 

Some might do it out of a sense that killing these three evil men leads to a greater good than not killing them. At the same time, however, we realize that murdering three people is not moral, and that to seek the greater good, in this case, we'd have to commit an immoral act.

How then is morality not relative?


The Trolley problem frustrates many because there is clearly no straight, clean-cut answer. Many who expect there to be an objective or even absolute morality often become frustrated by the thought experiment's limitations and begin creating wild hypotheticals to try and avoid having to make a moral judgement themselves. Maybe it’s God’s will for these people to die? Who are we to question God? Maybe God is testing us and wants us to learn that we cannot save everyone? Maybe Superman swoops down at the last minute and rescues everyone?

No, I’m afraid these rationalizations do not solve for the initial conditions as set by the problem. Really, the Trolley problem shows that our moral judgements do not abide by an objective or absolute standard. Instead, they frequently shift and change as our perspective shifts and changes and appear to be dependent on the conditions of the events which are unfolding, dependent upon our prior knowledge, and frequently change when the conditions and information changes.

Really, you’ve gotta love the Trolley problem.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Why are Certain People More Religious than Others? Answering a Reader's Question

I have a regular reader who emails me questions that he is currently wrestling with as someone who has recently lost faith. I am always glad to lend my opinion and share my own experiences, even though at the end of the day that's all it amounts to--me just yapping my mouth. But if it adds some sort of consolation or comfort to someone else, then I'm more than happy to oblige.

My reader wrote me asking the following (I trimmed it a bit due to length, but I left the gist of it):

Hi Tristan,
I've got one question for you. I cannot understand one thing. Why are some people, like you or me, (more) susceptible to religion than others?
For example, in my family everyone goes by as Christian on paper, except my father and sister. But the thing is none of these relatives of mine even have a Bible in their homes, let alone go to church. It was only me who got interested in Jesus Christ beyond what is considered ordinary Christian life in my country...
Is it a religious gene?... It seems to me that the whole religious business along with the Bible, Church, and the story of God is just the (an) invention... That is my impression. But the thing is and what I have been asking myself is: why one earth was I trying to believe in the first place?
I am not a Christian any more, do not believe in a personal God, and all those years spent believing seem foolishly wasted. It is really foolish to believe so why was I so foolish? This puzzles me.

My response was as follows:


Sorry for the late response. Things have been hectic. I'm burning the candle from both ends, as the late Christopher Hitchens used to say.

Regarding your question about a "religious gene", the idea you propose about certain people being more religious due to genetics has been a line of inquiry I've wondered about ever since I heard Richard Dawkins mention it as a possibility.

Although, I don't know how much our propensity to believe is genetics per se, as it's outside my knowledge base, I only know a few studies that investigate the question very thoroughly. It seems the research I've read suggests it is a real possibility, but as always, more research needs to be done.

Personally, I am inclined to think that it is probably more environmental than genetic.

In fact, our environments influence our genetics more than anything, so even if there is a genetic trait that makes people more or less religious, I would bet this influence is still mainly governed by our surrounding environments.

Jared Diamond's wonderful book Guns, Germs, and Steel shows how certain key inventions and cultural innovations changed the entire course of human history.

Diamond mentions that:

“History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

What's great about his book is that he examines the sociological component, that is to say the human aspect, of each of these main historical and cultural movements--and he shows that many of these changes occurred because the environments of humans changed.

New technologies made it easier to mine and refine steel, trade routes improved, better steel led to the ability to build larger buildings which could contain more people and cities grew bigger. Larger populations with more people traveling on new steel railroads and boats caused the rapid spread of germs to other cultures and countries, which in turn sparked the need for better medicine.

This, in turn, generated more medical research and helped improve medicine, which made it safer and easier to travel and to live in densely populated cities, etc. and etc.

In another one of Diamond's works, Why is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality, he has this to say:

“Perhaps our greatest distinction as a species is our capacity, unique among animals, to make counter-evolutionary choices.”

I think religion is much the same way.

There may be social reasons humans grouped together in close-knit societies, and a byproduct of this change may have been religion, which at it most basic seems to be a kind of tribalism which aims at maintaining strict allegiance to the group and being distrustful of outsiders.

At the same time, all the harm religion seems to cause can, in my mind, be equated to our capacity to make, as Diamond so astutely observes, counter-evolutionary choices.

Now a days, with the Internet, global communication, smart phones, easy, affordable, and expedient International travel, tribal borders has all but shrunk away to nothing. We are truly becoming a global society. And time marches on.

In this context, of ever shrinking borders, where cultures and ideas rub up against one another, and sometimes clash, it seems that certain religious ideas never had the ability to leave their local region until widespread communication and travel allowed these ideas to spread all across the globe.

Some have likened the harmful aspect of these tribal religious beliefs to a virus. But I think it's probably more nuanced than that.

Many of the ideas have a universal appeal, which is why they hang on. Many people can relate to them, because at their most basic they are still "tribal" stories in nature. Stories about moral values, upholding the values of the group, and keeping your faith safe from those things which would seek to dismantle the harmony of your particular group. This exclusivism often breeds an overzealous conservative streak in those who fear liberalism as a "dangerous" change that will erode and destroy their traditions way of life and as an affront to their conservative beliefs.  Yet the world continues to become more multicultural, and it seems to me liberalism is the only way to engage other cultures and people's without causing unnecessary friction by placing the 'other' into opposition with oneself or one's group.

I only mention all this because, in my experience, when I was in a secluded yet highly religious environment, conservative values were always championed and liberal values always demonized. There was no thought about inclusiveness, it was all about the community, the pride we had as a group, as a church, as a town, as a Republican, as conservative safeguarding our traditional values, as if they were sacred cows that should never be challenged or revised, lest they be tainted by the evils of the outside world.

It was in this sphere is where my religious beliefs and values were instilled.

And to a small degree, I would say when the environment changes the conditions of what we are exposed to changes, and we will change. We are all the product of our environments, after all.

And this is what religion tries to vehemently avoid. Religion doesn't want to be accommodationalist to the outside world and to other worldviews. It wants the outside world and all other worldviews to be accommodating to it and, often times, its archaic, outmoded, even dangerous rituals, practices, and beliefs.

Now, I know not all religions are created equal and not all religion is entirely bad. But it is in this sphere, this circle of conservatism, where religion operates and it uses this political element as a wedge to separate the heretical views of the world outside and creates for itself opposition. This is why religion always seems to butt heads with other ideologies, whether social, political, or moral.

I know, I'm going on at length about this, but bare with me. My point is coming.

I know that i was extremely religious from about 12 years old until I turned 18 and entered into college / university. The reason, I think (looking back now), is that I still hadn't developed enough critical thinking skills to evaluate ideas on my own, and I simply didn't have exposure to other ideas. In my small community, which was highly religious (a church on every street corner for a community of less than 2,000 people) I had a selection of about 20 different churches to attend in my community. The only other thing there was 20 of in my town was bars and pubs.

To put this in perspective, my entire town had one only two grocery stores. But approximately a dozen bars and a dozen churches. So until I turned 21, drinking at all the bars was out of the question. But religion, there was plenty of that to go around.

Now, my parents came out of religious homes, but they were more along the liens of "cultural Christians." That is, they were Christian in name mainly but didn't attend church or practice any of the ritualistic elements. Well, my mother did for a long time, but then sort of stopped. I think she goes to church again now that she has remarried a devout religious man. But she's happy, so that's good.

My parents prayed sometimes, and would go to church on the main days like Easter and Christmas Eve, and if someone they knew died or got married, but that was about it for church services.

But not for me though. Not even by a long shot.

When I turned 14 I made the personal choice to devote my life to Christ.


Because my church had a robust youth ministry. We called it Youth-Group or Kids for Christ. It was sponsored by the church, which organized fun activities for the local youth, and it was always accompanied by bible studies and mini-sermons by either our pastor or youth pastor.

Namely, it was something to do. It kept me out of trouble, so it wasn't all bad. But, in hindsight, it really did amount to basically a brainwashing camp. Because, when you think about it, what else were we learning?

I attended church and church related activities three times a week, and that was about the same amount of times I had math class per week at school. So, basically, I was learning about the Holy Bible just as intensely as I was any of my other studies at school. And, of course, school has distractions, like sports, and girls and what not. Not so much at church.

You see, when I was at church, I focused on church. I was focused on improving my relationship with God. I was focused on faith.

I read my Bible thoroughly. I read it before bed. I read it three times a week at Bible study. I read it on the weekends. Those were the stories I knew, and at school, mainly I was just getting watered down, general overviews of subjects. Nothing too in depth. I mean, we never really got into any subject in any detail unless it was an elective class and the teacher made sure we knew our stuff. My mythology class was one of the better classes I had in terms of content. My Shakespeare class was another one. It was the same teacher, and she really pushed us to read the material and learn it.

But at the same time, my general knowledge of history and science was pretty lacking. Math was a pain in the ass. School life was fine, but outside of that, all there was to do was sports or video games, and hang out with friends. Pretty much what every teenager these days does anyway. But there was no YouTube. I couldn't just go on and listen to religious people debate atheists. There were no outside ideas streaming into my home. This stuff simply didn't exist.

So I spent my free time in other ways.

Religion filled that niche for me.

So I grew more and more religious. And by the time I was 16 -- Jesus and the saving grace of God was about all I could talk about. I was on fire for Christ, as we used to say. In the 90s, we called ourselves "Jesus Freaks." A fitting name, because that's exactly what we were.

At that time I started doing youth ministries, started traveling the U.S. to visit other Evangelical churches like my own, getting to know other Christians. And within this little sub-cultural of the greater Christian culture that saturates America, I had a lot of fun. Made a lot of friends.

And then, my religioisity started to get really extreme.

My friends and I began to burn all our music albums that weren't Christian. We stopped watching movies that were rater R or even PG-13. We vowed not to let our girlfriends or the thought of sex distract us from our mission to be more Christlike.

I even got a summer job as a camp counselor at one of the better known Christian bible camps in my state, and they ran that thing exactly like a cult. We literally used emotional blackmail and fear tactics to scare young children into emotionally breaking down and accepting Christ. We called it "Witnessing."

In retrospect, being a part of that Christian bible camp is one of my life's greatest regrets. But at the time, I didn't know what I was doing was a kind of sick and twisted psychological manipulation of young children's minds.

I honestly thought I was doing God's work, spreading the "good news" and sharing my faith while helping others to walk a righteous path with the Christian Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It was about fellowship and making lasting bonds with my fellow Christians.

And we rejoiced in this.

Perhaps the most ironic thing is, thought, that I am no longer in touch with any of the Christian friends I once had back then. Not really. Not since I left the faith. The only people I still talk to from my Bible camp days are those who, like me, left the faith.

But those that stayed true to their faith, every time I've reached out to them, although polite, they haven't shown me the time of day. I can only think back to that religious tendency of wanting to shelter itself from those dangerous outside views that challenge it and which sometimes outright defy it. I know I bring a lot of that to the table in terms of my activism, and so I can't blame my old religious friends for shying away from the Advocatus Atheist. I guess, in this respect, my zeal for the religious subject matter never truly dissipated. But instead of wasting precious hours of my day devoted to atheist, humanist, and secular activism, I have settled to just blog about these issues instead. ;)

So, okay, I've rambled on for far too long.

But my point is, once I left that religiously super-charge environment where there was no other stimuli, when I went out into the world and began thinking for myself, when I found other interests besides religion -- because I learned there was other subjects in the world than religion -- my mind expanded greatly.

College helped open my mind up even more, by challenging my limited knowledge and my views. My move to Japan tore my mind wide open to other possibilities and different worldviews. And somewhere along the way my religion fell out.

When you have an open mind, it's really hard just to hold on to one thing. When you have many interests, you want to learn them all. When you gain new experiences, you can no longer pretend that you've experienced all you need to. When you obtain new knowledge, you cannot pretend you know all there is to know.

Between becoming better educated, learning to critically evaluate my beliefs, and having more experiences I realized that my religiosity was just a small part of who I was.

But it was a big part of who I was when I didn't know anything else.

Finally, I will share one last quote from Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

“Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes [of the various societies' histories] towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values. On reflection we can also recognize the crucial role of these same two choices for the outcomes of our individual lives.”

At any rate, I apologize for going on at length. I really don't know the answer to the genetic aspect of being more or less religious, so I think I failed to answer your question, but it is fascinating to think about none-the-less. Hopefully I gave you something to chew on, if its any consolation.


Tristan Vick aka The Advocatus Atheist



My loyal reader responded with a nice compliment!

Thanks for the reply. Better late than never.

As for the length of your response I can only say that your emails have been so far of the highest quality possible despite their quantity. Your responses have always been informative and I have learned much from them....
Once again, thanks for sharing your experience.
All the best.


What a nice compliment! I was afraid I had bored them to death with my ramble. Anyway, I must say thanks for the compliment! I always enjoy hearing that my words are beneficial to someone and I'm not just wasting my breath.


Saturday, June 6, 2015

Is Caitlyn Jenner a Hero?

I thought I was done talking about this topic, but obviously not. There are too many dense heads and unsympathetic people who'd rather sling nasty hate than try for one second to exercise a modicum of empathy.

So, without further ado... 

Some people are saying what Caitlyn Jenner did is not brave or heroic. 

Lots of memes of Caitlyn Jenner juxtaposed against other athletes and war veterans carry the insensitive captions hero, hero, hero, Caitlyn Jenner: not a hero.

A lot of this hullabaloo comes hot off the heels of the announcement that Caitlyn Jenner is going to receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

So, the question is:

Is Caitlyn Jenner a Hero? Is she courageous? Brave?

Most Likely. 


Those who still may not think Caitlyn Jenner is doing something heroic, let me just say that I can guess with fair certainty that you are not a transgender person hiding in the closet for fear of walking down the street to get groceries or pick up your kids from school only to be beaten to death in the street for no reason but for the fact that you were different. 

I am sure Jenner's actions seem heroic to those people who have endured such hardships, who live in constant fear and intimidation, and who might have even experienced the trauma of physical abuse first hand and the ostracizing by family and friends as well as their communities.

People's inability to sympathize with the LGBT community is the problem, not the fact that Caitlyn Jenner is a high profile celebrity. Jenner is in a key position to be a spokesperson for the LGBT community and can aid in bringing greater cultural awareness and tolerance for LGBT people. 

So, the question is, should you care? Yes. I think so. I think it is a necessary conversation.

Jenner doesn't need to be my personal hero to be a hero and an inspiration to others. What I find heroic isn't the issue here.

My beef isn't with what people personally find heroic. My beef is that society as a whole cannot accept that Caitlyn Jenner is a hero to LGBT people, simply because they feel confused, or "icky" inside thinking about it. 

Well, if it bothers you that much then don't think about it, but by the same token, don't try to dictate what people can and cannot find heroic because it doesn't fit with your views of heroism. Espeically when you can't muster up enough empathy to say anything supportive of Caitlyn Jenner or any of the rest of the LGBT community but feel more than within your right to share hurtful or damaging memes/ words about them.

The bottom line?

Society needs to grow the fuck up.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Why I won't Misgender Caitlyn Jenner or any other transgender-person

Let me get up on my soapbox here for a minute.

Recently I posted this meme on my personal Facebook timeline.

It instantly sparked a long debate in the comments section of the post, but not for the reasons you'd think. Nobody was talking about the incestuous scumbag Josh Duggard and how he raped his 4 year old sister until she was 12 or about how his parents helped conceal the terrible truth of it and cover up years of molestation within the family.

Rather, to my dismay, it seemed people were more morally outraged by a person changing their gender identity.

First, never mind the fact that a person having a sex change or who changes their gender has nothing to do with you and is completely a personal matter. What's more, it isn't hurting anyone, but people still want to misgender Caitlyn Jenner and say that because she hasn't had a full genital reconstruction she isn't technically a woman yet and so stubbornly dismiss her coming out and continue to pedantically refer to her as a "him" even after being corrected.

This dismissiveness isn't just rude and insensitive, which it totally is, but in this case it is dehumanizing and immoral. Allow me to explain why.

Within human society, both Western and Eastern, sex and sexuality have been separate for a long time. Gender identity is tied up with sexuality where as the biology of sex isn't. 

I think people get confused about pronouns because traditionally speaking it's hard to change our thinking about solid forms, like biological sex. Don't even think about trying it with the more nebulous concepts of self-identity and individuality which come with them their own unique philosophical challenges.

The way I often try to explain it is that anatomy (having the parts) is merely aesthetic. Structural. But that the identity, the mind, the soul, the person as they feel themselves to be doesn't change because they have a certain anatomy.

Gay men are not women even though they like (i.e., are sexually attracted to) the same sex. Thus, it's obvious to me, gender is separate from biological sex.

It seems this is an easy concept for most to grasp without problem even though many have lots of trouble accepting that trans-people, whether transgender or transsexual, often end up choosing one gender identity over another. Even though this is not always the case, and even though gender identities vary and can blend.

When I first came to Japan I was shocked by how many trans-people were on national television and talk shows. After a while I fell madly in love with Haruna Ai, one of Japan's most famous women. I didn't care that she used to be something else. I had only ever known her as a woman, and that's what she wanted to be, and she's beautiful and funny... and her light bubbly television personality won me over instantly.

I think the best thing to do is to try and get comfortable with the notion that there are more than just two genders, even as there seems to only be two sets of biological sex (or more accurately three since transsexual is technically a third biological sex, strictly speaking). And it's probably not a good idea to gender stereotype people into just two categories--which is a very black and white way of seeing the issue.

Society compounds the problem when we assign rigid gender roles to one gender and not another and don't allow for any crossover or variance or any leeway in who we see carrying out these preselected gender roles. When someone tries to crossover, or there is variance, people's first reactions seem to be to gender stereotype. I think we have to be mindful that this can be damaging, not only to the person who it tries to crush into a single form they don't identify with but it also insolently dismisses that which they do identify with. It's worth noting that such prejudice has never benefited humanity and only seeks to hold us back, as has racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. Now we can add transphobia to this notorious list of myopic and callous thinking that seems to retard society as a whole. 

I'm sure that many of you may all well know all this, but I am explaining it here for the benefit of others who may still be confused about why using an outmoded pronoun for a trans-person might be insensitive and rude.

Additionally, medical science has been well aware of the blurred lines where biology and gender identity come into play for a long time.

I am reminded of an episode of the medical drama House, M.D. called "Skin Deep" where the female super model turned out to have a very rare condition called *complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, and even though she had all the biological parts of a female, she was technically male.

See here for more on complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (…/Complete_androgen_insensitivity_s…)

Society doesn't seem equipped to even talk about such things since people are so frequently poorly informed. Which is why I felt this little rant was worth having.

I think the pedantic nature of people using certain pronouns to misidentify or misgender someone is terribly insensitive.

I think if people started calling me a "she" even though I think of myself as a "he" it would seem rather insensitive, especially after I was patient enough to point it out to them that I don't think of myself as that particular thing.

My body parts never really come into play. It's not a question of what gear I am packing. It's a question about how I see myself and how I feel on the inside. The true me. The real me. Knowing this, I can empathize with Caitlyn Jenner and those who face such obstinacy from society at large.

Let's think of it another way. Misgendering someone would be a lot like calling a gay person straight just because you don't want to accept other sexual preferences than your own, and it comes off as being rather condescending and rude, not to mention completely dismissive of the person's feelings and who they are as a person separate from their basic anatomy--which, again, has nothing to say on gender.

In this case, gender stereotypes are outmoded, and I am perfectly fine accepting people for who they are.

We have to respect people as they see themselves and learn to love them for who they are lest we devolve into complete bigotry due to our inflexibility to adjust our views and update them accordingly. As Bob Dylan sang, the times are a changing.

I don't think we should misgender people because we judge them according to the inflexible standards of society, a society which is not well informed on the topic and which holds to definitions from a bygone era when nobody knew the difference anyway. 

It seems that if you want to update your knowledge, you have to put the pseudoscience aside. If you want new cutting edge medicine, you have to put away the crackpot alternative medicine and get with the program. I would say the same about gender, sexuality, and sex. If you want to understand these things as they truly are, you can't hold to an outmoded rule book that doesn't care to see these things in any terms other than black and white.

That's why holding to the "he" or "him" pronouns for Caitlyn Jenner is insensitive and wrong. It becomes offensive when people are corrected on it but continue to misgender the person anyway.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Remembering my Father: Wayne Lee Vick

I miss my father lots. You see, two years ago, on May 27th of 2013, he took his own life in a trifecta suicide (I’ve explained what that means in a previous post on the matter, but I see no reason to repeat it here) and, well, tomorrow is the two year anniversary of his death. He would have been 63 this October.

My father, Wayne Lee Vick, had an estimated I.Q. of 180 (I say estimated because my mother tells me he had taken an I.Q. test in college and that's what she recollects it being although my father never would have mentioned it). He had a MA in business and a Juris Doctorate (J.D.) for the state of Montana. He was committed to the practice of law for over 30 years, until in his last decade when he finally decided not to renew his license to practice law in order to focus on finalizing his business responsibilities managing Northern Telephone cooperative.

My father loved technical things. He loved to build radio controlled cars from scratch. He loved toy rockets and fireworks. He loved videogames and computers and technology. Which is why, in 1996 he had the ambitious idea to plow hundreds of miles of fiber optics through all of north western Montana. A move that caused some friction with his company, a small rural phone provider, that questioned the need for broadband, since wouldn’t dial up suffice? Why spend millions on expensive equipment and digging up half of Montana simply for faster Internet? Back in the mid-90s when my father had proposed such an idea, people thought the idea was absurd on the face of it!

But then broadband happened and the Internet boom and Internet providers popped up everywhere and my father had all the naysayers eating crow—heck, they’re still eating it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day they continue to sell broadband Internet as a service. 

In 1995 he started a video streaming company called VisionNet. It now mainly is an Internet hosting service and online database, but my father knew that the online streaming of film and television, and things like YouTube and Skype, were the wave of the future. This in 1995 a decade before YouTube was even a blip on anyone’s radar and NETFLIX wasn’t even a concept. 

Just to help put this in perspective, YouTube was launched in 2005, the year I graduated college, and Netflix was a DVD mail service, that began in 1997, wouldn’t offer video streaming until 2007. My dad created a video streaming Internet company in 1995! It boggles the mind.

So to say my dad was somewhat of a visionary, and a brilliant man, who was riding the wave of technology to see where it would go, isn’t much of an overstatement. If anything, it barely does his genius justice. You see, while all the tech-wizards were busy inventing the hardware and software, turning Silicon Valley into an iconic fixture of American innovation and technological prowess, you still needed someone to pave the roads, to chart where the stuff was going to go, and to figure out how to market it to the public and while simultaneously making it affordable. My dad was at the head of his game when it came to the golden age of the Internet.

Before my dad retired, he had completed a decade long plan to get high-speed Internet into the Blackfeet Native American Indian reservation and to the Blackfeet Community College in Browning Montana. I think it was one of his finest moments, because the Blackfeet didn’t make it easy for him. Something about plowing fiber optics through sacred land bothered them—screw getting a decent college education, the future of the tribe be damned, just don’t upturn our soil. After years of paperwork and due process and planning to plow underneath the pre-existing highway my father eventually won out. I will always be proud of him for winning that battle. 

I will always have fond memories of my father. As stubborn as he could be sometimes, and as angry as he’d get whenever his temper blew up, he did a lot more things right than he did wrong. He probably wouldn’t think so, since he was always his own worst critic, and he always considered everything he did a failure, but I think he may have been a little too hard on himself. 

In his last few years his health took a turn for a worse, and he blamed himself horribly for a problematic lawsuit that gave him a lot of grief. Much more than it should have. I suppose he just didn’t like the idea of having a two decade long winning streak at his company only to, in the very last couple of years, fumble the ball, so to speak. The lawsuit tarnished an otherwise perfect record, which is a bummer, for sure, but it wasn’t the end of the world. But for some reason he just couldn’t let it go. He dwelt on it until his very last days, sadly enough. 

What else can I say about the man? 

My father wasn’t sarcastic per se, but he did tell good stories where he always one upped some “punk” or another—just to put them in their place. He didn’t like “punks” – a word he used to describe hotshots and people so full of themselves they’d forget their manners. When some college kids moved in next door to him in the rental house that sat adjacent to his property, their late night partying and racket aggravated him so much that he ended up buying the house from the lady who owned it for twice what it was worth and then serendipitously gave them their thirty-day notice. 

He loved what you’d call “father jokes.” Those horrible puns and bad jokes that only fathers tell and for which there are an endless stream of Internet memes for. He was a pioneer with respect to creating great father jokes. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but there will be times when I hear or see something and a memory is triggered and his greatest hits play over again in my mind. It brings a smile to my face. He had the best father jokes.

Well, every winter my father enjoyed building elaborate snowmen. Well, not snowmen per se, but snow things – everything from giant frogs in top hats to dinosaurs. He’d spend a whole day, from sun up till sun down, just playing in the snow.

He loved to decorate for Christmas. He was big on Christmas stocking-stuffers, because when he was a kid they couldn’t afford big presents and he and his brother and sister made gifts and their mom Viola, grandma Faye to me, baked treats and put them in. Later, when my dad had money, he would often spoil my brother and I on Christmas day. We get LEGOS and Tranformers, Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joes, the latest Nintendo games (each of us received a different one which we were told to share), and a stocking full of goodies. Of course, my dad loved video games as much as we did, so while he was hogging the console we’d go play with our toys. Good times.

My dad loved to eat watermelon. My grandma Betty (my mom’s mom) always had one waiting for him if she knew he was coming over. She always told me he was like a son to her, and she always felt that way about him even after my parents divorced (when I was five).

If you ever saw my dad eat a french-fry you would be hard pressed to ever forget it. Nobody I’ve ever seen eats fries the way my father did. He’d spread ketchup from a single pack directly onto a single fry, eating them one at a time, only to repeat the process until all the fries were gone. It was the most tedious way to eat French fries I’ve ever seen, but he wouldn’t do it any other way. He had his quirks.

My dad love salty junk food. He loved everything from pretzels to potato chips, to sunflowers seeds and beef jerky, and fried chicken. He liked orange or kiwi-lime slushes (slushies / smoothies, etc.) and blueberry muffins, which he’d often bake for my brother and I when we’d visit. Oh, and he was a Coke man. Coca Cola classic was his drink of choice, and it’s mine too. 

To this day I am still addicted to all of these things because of my father. Although I’ve had to cut back in recent years, for health reasons—but every time I see pretzels in the store or drink a Coke, I think about how much my father loved these things.

My dad, he rarely drank alcohol. Almost never comes pretty close to describing it. I think I saw him drink a couple of glasses of wine around the holiday season each year and he had a beer with my uncle once or twice, again just on the holidays. In my entire life I never saw him get drunk. Not even once. Yeah, he wasn’t a big social drinker, and to be honest he wasn’t all that sociable either, which is probably why he never had a use for it. 

I don’t drink alcohol all that much either, frankly because neither of my parents ever did and I never found it was something I was dying to try. In high school some of my friends got arrested for stealing beer from the local supermarket, and I was like really? Really guys? I never really developed a taste for it. It’s just sort of “meh” to me, and I didn’t ever truly get drunk until I came to Japan where social drinking is practically forced on you. But like my father before me, I drink very rarely. Maybe during the holidays, if even that.

You wanna know something else? My father was good with wood. He built a rocking horse for my daughter, Solara (which she named Spicy), and it’s one of the most impressive pieces of wood sculpting I’ve ever seen.

Later in life, my father got into CGI modeling quite seriously. He ran the MAYA software on two custom BOXX machines, and he has made numerous 3-D images for art magazines and art competitions. He even made a small animated featurette that won the Renderosity magazine video for first place one year (I can’t remember which year exactly, but I am inclined to say 2003). It involved penguins sliding down a snowy mountain on their bellies while dodging trees and reindeer and things.

I kept a print of his first ever 3D art of a girl reading a book in an armchair by candlelight with a mouse looking over her shoulder. It’s framed and on my wall in my house.

My father only met his granddaughter once. Solara remembers his face from pictures but she doesn’t remember spending time with him. She was only 2 years old at the time, so her memories weren’t permanent set in yet. The next time we’d travel to his house it would be for his funeral. I think it’s sad. I would have liked him to get to know her better, but at least he got to meet her, hold her, and read books to her at least once. I would have liked him to meet his grandson, Kai, who he never even got to learn about.

Such is life though. Extremely unfair, and occasionally, it takes your loved ones from you. But we deal the best we can, we cope in our own way, and writing about my father as not to let the memories fade—and to honor him—is my own way of coping.

I love you dad. Miss you every day, and I’ll “like you and love you lots” forever.


Your son...

Tristan Vick

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Discussing Ignosticism: Does Ignosticism Refute God?


A reader raised a valid concern regarding ignosticm. He stated:

"It's worth noting that ignosticism doesn't support atheism; at least under certain definitions. By asserting atheism you assume a definition of god that you reject. At which point the ignostic answer is to ask "what's the atheistic definition of god?" How can you reject such an entity if you have yet to define it?"

This is correct. Ignosticism doesn't actually disprove the possibility of God being extant, or the existence of any gods or goddesses, for that matter. I actually talk about this some more in my book on Ignosticism, by the same title.

At best ignosticism shows that most, if not all, definitions of God are invalid due to the problem of coherency (or lack thereof, in this case) and comprehensibility (or, again, lack thereof).

Just a quick remind of how I am using the terms comprehensibility and coherency.

Coherency here concerns itself with whether or not an argument, theory, policy, or in this case, description is logical and consistent. Most theological descriptions of God are not.

Meanwhile, comprehensibility has to do with whether or not we can discern and understand God well enough to supply a valid description. Although, it appears this is impossible. Hence, these are the two areas where ignosticism objects to descriptions and definitions of God being taken at face value.

It's true that ignosticism doesn't disprove the existence of God. But it's not meant to. It's only meant to challenge the logical consistency of definitions regarding God and show that minus this, our ability to comprehend God would seem impossible, thus rather futile.

If such a being as God exists at all, all ignosticism can hope to show is that nobody is capable of adequately defining it (God), in which case it might as well be irrelevant, since it cannot be talked about in any relevant manner that would be meaningful to us. In order to talk about something meaningfully it has to be both coherent and comprehensible first.

What I show in the book is that ignosticism is, at the least, compatible with all atheistic assumptions (hint: there's only one assumption here -- that there is no God).

I would offer a small correction where our reader suggests that there are atheistic definitions of God: this is wrong. In actuality, there is no atheistic definition of God. Atheism simply rejects the *theistic claim, the one that says there exists a God (this being the alternative hypothesis) because, upon closer inspection, this claim cannot seem to be established let alone validated as it fails to nullify the null hypothesis (the null hypothesis in this case being the natural world as we observe it, minus any supernatural propositions).

Assuming there is a God that can be described adequately enough to nullify the null hypothesis is the theist's position, and multiplies assumptions about reality beyond the necessity of the atheist who already agrees with naturalism's view of reality.

Now, one might wonder why naturalism is the null hypothesis? Well, because this is the starting point. This is where we posit the question of whether or not there is more to the world than we observe. In other words, you begin at zero then count up to one. You don't begin at one, or two, or three, or a dozen and then assume zero isn't a valid starting point. Zero assumptions is the null hypothesis, and making zero assumptions about reality, that's where we start.

Atheists merely take the view that, when it comes to describing something like God, the null hypothesis must be defeated by an alternative hypothesis before any assumption can be taken seriously. Ignosticism confirms this assumption by demonstrating that all descriptions of God fail to nullify the null hypothesis and establish a valid alternative hypothesis, e.g. the existence of a discernible, comprehensible, God.

As such, based on this logical progression, I thus contend that ignosticism is an additional justification for the reasonableness of atheism.

Unsatisfied with my answer, our reader comes back to his original point.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but 'atheism' is the rejection of the claim a god exists. As such, in order to properly reject such a claim, you must first have a proper definition. Otherwise you can't be certain of what you are rejecting. That is, if you happened to define 'god' as the sun, atheists would (by definition) reject the existence of the sun.

If this is not the case, then the atheistic position has it's own definition of a god, which is then rejects. Otherwise 'atheism' itself is undefined and illogical to accept.

The only way out of this is to say that atheism rejects the term god itself, rather than any possible thing it represents. Which to me seems a bit silly."

At this point I tried to explain things another way. 

Atheism takes no stance on how the God proposition is presented, except to say that as it is commonly presented there is no evidence to prove such a proposition, and lacking such a demonstration the proposition is prima facie false.

In other words, the validity of atheism is not dependent on the underlying semantics of how the theist chooses to represent, and ultimately, define their version of God.

Does that make sense?

So, the positive claim being made here is the theist's claim. Mainly, that God is extant. And thus God being an object that exists, they claim to be able to derive a description of this being.

The atheist position is merely a response to this claim being presented, regardless of how the theist chooses to define their terms.

The atheist, for the sake of argument, can accept the theists proposition and take it at face value, whether or not they are ultimately true. For example, the atheist could say, sure, you believe that the Sun is god, but then, all you have is a definition with no real world value. No meaning. In order for that statement to be meaningful, we'd have access to some evidence that demonstrates the claim is true, otherwise it's a baseless assertion.

Once supplied the definitions of the theists God, the atheist can make logical deductions to determine whether or not such a description is logically sound, whether or not it is evidenced, etc. until they have scrutinized it thoroughly enough to evaluate the proposition.

So, you see, the atheist can accept terms or reject terms because it's less about singling out any given definition of God than it is singling out whether or not any of these definitions can be justified and, ultimately, can be verified.

As such, having evaluated the proposition and the terms supplied by the theist, the atheist says the theist has yet to meet the burden of proof, and therefore no real demonstration has been provided, thus the theist's claims about God are baseless. 

This being the case, it doesn't appear their is any evidence to propose such a God in the first place, hence it would seem the theist position is wrong, therefore God does not exist.

Back tracking for a moment, once a definition has been supplied by the theist, this is where the ignostic becomes concerned. The ignostic points out that the description of God isn't actually describing anything, and this is a problem. The ignostic observes that for a description to be valid, it would have to be both logically consistent and comprehensible.

Now, in theology, there are, of course, logical descriptions of God. But this doesn't in itself justify the definition of God as true to the conditions of which it was constructed. That is, the next step in ignosticism asks whether the description provided is true because it accurately describes the thing itself (the referent, or in this case God) or whether it's true because it meets all the requisites of a logical conceptualization.

I personally hold that most logical descriptions of God fit into the latter category, thus nothing has actually been proved other than the fact that genuinely smart theists are capable of constructing logically consistent definitions.

But God has not been made comprehensible, just coherent. For God to become entirely comprehensible to us we would need to understand the thing we were examining. 

Not having anything to examine, theologians often will say God is incomprehensible, beyond our understanding, a safeguard themselves from criticism so they won't need to meet the burden of proof, but can still use their logically consistent definitions as apologetic tools to prop up their proposition with the illusion of, at least, appearing true--even as that has not been demonstrated.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist